Monday, January 4, 2016

The Terminator (1984)

A friend of mine recently said he was about to shock me, I asked him why, and he said he thought The Terminator was a better movie than Terminator 2: Judgement Day. "What?" I asked in surprise. "I don't know anyone with that opinion." It's just a perfect little science fiction story, he said, and the conversation pretty much ended there because I actually hadn't seen the movie since 2009, and for some reason recall really being disappointed by it. 

Watching it again recently, I loved it way more, and whatever complaints I had about it originally were pretty much expunged. I recall being letdown that Schwarzenegger was playing a villain, but that was more a result of action figure nostalgia and youthful ignorance than any rational thought. Now, after having seen the majority of the Schwarzenegger classics and being dissatisfied by his recent attempt at a career resurrection, and as a whole tired of his macho cheese ball schtick, it was refreshing to see the actor exist in a movie purely for his intimidating physicality. 

The movie was more terrifying this time around, largely due to the nearly unstoppable strength of the Terminator, a facet that was undermined on my initial viewing from that aforementioned disappointment over Schwarzenegger's role as villain. And in some ways, I found the movie to play as much like a horror film as a sci-fi actioner. The Terminator lacks human agency sort of like a psychopath does, and as a result a lot of the movie plays like a stalker film in which a very scary being pursues and kills innocent people. This is especially true in the early parts of the film, when the Terminator tracks down and dispatches a different Sarah Connor, and later, when it slaughter's the real Connor's roommate and her boyfriend. Also, the climax of the film, in which the Terminator loses its flesh and pursues Connor and Kyle Reese as a slow-moving piece of metal, feels like a George Romero zombie picture. In many ways, though to a lesser extent, this film is to Terminator 2 what Alien was to Aliens.

Another potential reason for disappointment here is that for most of the movie Sarah Connor is not the badass heroine that the culture now associates her as, but rather a scared, unlucky waitress who doesn't even "know how to balance a checkbook." And yet from a performance-standpoint, what Linda Hamilton is asked to do here is surely more challenging. She has to express both fear and bafflement as she learns about a legacy she's not yet built while simultaneously escaping the gun of a vicious robot. Hamilton's so good at expressing the trepidation and shock at the idea of becoming a warrior for humanity that though this realization and her reaction to it are limited to a just a few scenes as Kyle Reese explains the future, her feelings are still felt strongly by the viewer. 

Finally, the movie is far more impressive visually than I'd recalled. Cameron obviously took advantage of improved CGI capabilities for Judgement Day, but what he had available in 1984 is still quite impressive, especially the moment of fire and explosion when Reese drops the pipe bomb in the semi towards the end of the film. And the stop motion bits when the Terminator is entirely robot, while obviously dated, are well done considering what the filmmakers had to work with. On top of that, the awkwardness of the machine's movements as it pursues Connor and Reese do actually contribute to the previously mentioned horror aspects of the movie. While I have no clear idea if the zombie film was something Cameron had on his mind, the clunkiness of the entire final pursuit makes it seem as if he did. And as should always be stressed simply for the sake of thinking more about something, even if an action is not intended, that does not mean it does not have ramifications. Knock loudly on the door to attract your woman, and the noise wakes up the baby. 

I did not leave The Terminator in agreement with my friend. I still feel Judgement Day packs a better punch with its mix of action and emotion. But that also has to do with the fact that the action was of a greater quality because movies had advanced in their visual capabilities by the time the sequel was released, and also because there was simply more room for emotional resonance with a movie where Schwarzenegger played a hero, Connor had a son, and the events of the future were more than just words from a soldier apparently sent from the future. While The Terminator laid the groundwork for ideas and emotion, the follow-up was able to really explore them. That being said, there's something to be said for the 1984 original, which dared to challenge the viewer with ideas about AI dominance, fear, responsibility, and genre filmmaking as being more than sticking to a specific genre. 

No comments: